Sunday, September 7, 2008

Visible Scars: Right tricep

There's a three-inch long straight scar on the back of my (now annoyingly flabby) right arm. I got it when I was 12 or 13. I was walking up a hill carrying my baby sister Carla on my hip, when her diaper pin came undone and made a long scratch on the bottom of my arm. It didn't hurt much and didn't bleed much, but because it was ragged it made a scar that has lasted all these years.

This was when we lived in Panama. I remember my mother sitting at the kitchen table and telling me that she was going to have a baby. It would be her sixth, and last child. If I have done my math correctly (and I could be off) she was 34 when Carla was born. Sometimes when I'm feeling psychologically adventurous I think about how old all my siblings were when my mother was the age I am now, and also how I viewed her at that age. I have to be in an adventurous mood because usually I start feeling really old.

When Carla was a baby, she slept in a crib in my parents' room. My dad put black plastic over all the windows to keep out the tropical sunlight so she could sleep. There was a playpen in the living room where she could watch what everyone was doing but stay out of trouble.

This house was the last one in Panama. It was on Howard Air Force Base, which was across the canal from Panama City on the Pacific side. If you looked just right, you could see the canal from our front porch. The house was set on concrete pillars with open space underneath - tropical style that kept the house somewhat cool. There was a small maid's quarters with a bedroom and small bathroom on the bottom level and the rest was open. I remember one time we sat out on the cool concrete and ate some C-rations that Dad brought home from a survival exercise. We thought it was the ultimate cool to tear open a foil packet and eat a dense, barely chocolate brownie. I'm not sure Dad thought it was so fabulous when he was out in the jungle.

Our house was almost at the top of a hill, and on Saturdays we would walk up the sidewalk to the top, through a back yard and then down a long trail which led to the movie theater. Saturday morning movies were a real treat, and they were NOT first runs, believe me. I always loved this one called "Follow Me Boys" with Fred McMurray, some heartwarming story that involved Boy Scouts and a happy ending. It had a catchy theme song, and we would climb back up the hill singing it, swinging our arms with the tempo.

There were mango trees, avocado trees and coconuts. We tried to crack coconuts but always just ended up pounding a screwdriver into one of the eyes, drinking the milk, then smashing it with a hammer to get to the meat. My sisters liked to eat green mangoes, which are very tart to start with, adding vinegar to them for even more tang. Makes my mouth pucker up just thinking about it.

We lived in a lot of different houses before we got permanent quarters. Some of them we house-sat (someone who was going stateside for a couple of months would open their house for an incoming family). This is what I remember:
a house in Balboa which was half of a duplex, there was a piano and a songbook and I taught myself how to pick out the tune of "Camptown Races"

an apartment in Panama City with an elevator that went up to the rooftop and a dining room where I learned the Spanish alphabet

a blue house, small but with two stories, and a bonfire at Halloween

A grand old hotel where we had two rooms, it was in the Canal Zone but across the street from the city. I think it was called the Tivoli and I don't know why we lived there but we did for a short while. I remember seeing the buses we called "chivas" and there was a church nearby with a huge gold altar.

A house I think in Cocoli which was up on pillars, but it was wood not concrete, and I think it was a duplex. We had Easter there; I remember blowing the egg out of eggshells to decorate. There was an overgrown area next to it with sawgrass and I got to use a machete to cut it. I saw an iguana and big leaf-cutter ants marching with fin-shaped leaf pieces on their backs.

There will be many more stories of Panama on this blog, because those three years are about the most favorite of my childhood.

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